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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Shunji Iwai's ambitious cult classic made Japanese film history!

The three main characters in the movie Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) sitting around a piano. The scene look melancholic.
All images are property of Rockwell Eyes

Director: Shunji Iwai

Cast: Ayumi Itô, Hiroshi Mikami, Chara, Yôsuke Eguchi, Andy Hui Chi-On, Atsurô Watabe

Related films: Love Letter, All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana and Alice, Dead or Alive

Verdict: 5/6

The Swallowtail Kaleidoscope of Confusion

Subjectively speaking, Swallowtail Butterfly had to be re-watched a few times to be fully appreciated. The film is set in the near future, in a time when Japanese, Chinese and English languages have developed into several creolizations. This excuses the terrible pronunciation to a certain extent, but not the stale acting.

The first time around it was hard to look past the fact that the Japanese actors spoke large parts of their dialogue in broken English. As such, all «English» dialogue makes for unconvincing performances, which naturally disrupts the sense of realism.

«I wanted to depict the immigrants as human beings. I was told that I

made their lives seem too happy, but I admired their underlying strength

more than I did that of the Japanese, who seemed to have lost theirs.»

Shunji Iwai - Tokyo International Film Festival

That being said, when re-watching the film for the second and third time - being able to put the language issues aside and focus on Iwai’s bigger picture - a wonderfully heartfelt story seeped through the cracks.

As if the intricate language-design wasn’t enough, the atmosphere, settings, ensemble cast, costumes and script are like nothing you have ever seen. Swallowtail Butterfly is hailed by many as the director’s finest moment. It is definitely his most ambitious, and probably also his best.

Three lower class kids playing with counterfeit money. Taken from the movie Swallowtail Butterfly (1996).
It's all about the Cashflow guys!

Producing Swallowtail Butterfly

Iwai has proven to be a proficient director of both traditional melodramas and experimental films. Swallowtail Butterfly definitely leans towards experimental film-making, but hidden beneath its scruffy exterior lies a strong melodrama.

As usual, Iwai’s cinematography and sound design is all over the place, which is to say an eclectic mix of handheld camera work and a bold score. To top it off, the film sports one of the biggest international casts to ever be seen in any Japanese film.

On more than a few occasions, Swallowtail Butterfly has been

described as equally significant to Japanese filmmaking

as Pulp Fiction was to Hollywood cinema.

Daniel Eagan at Film Comment described the film as a mix of guerrilla-style-shooting, fake-music-videos, MTV-pastiche, and jump-cuts between nightclubs, shoot-outs and urchins falling in love. He then went on to argue that Iwai’s next film - All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) - was a more successful blend of film and popular culture. I find it hard to decide...

Iwai’s experimental films always had a tendency to put form before content, resulting in strong stories being disrupted by artsy style and design. I would argue that this is not the case with Swallowtail Butterfly. Yes, Iwai is more experimental than ever, and yes, I had to see the film three times, but in the end the style and story melted together in perfect symbiosis.

Two «hillbillies» looking for trouble. Taken from the movie Swallowtail Butterfly (1996).
That T-shirt is lookin' mighty fine Sir.

The Wisdom of Swallowtail Butterflies

The innovative style is but one thing that makes this film so special. The story and character development are profoundly deep and gives way for countless angles of interpretation and analysis. The postmodern, dystopian landscape of the multicultural shantytown reeks of sociopolitical undertones.

The cultural hodgepodge in Swallowtail Butterfly is almost comical to behold when remembering how Japan shut down their borders completely to the outside world in the 1600s. For 200 years, the Japanese foreign policy were broken bonds on all fronts.

Yen Town is the complete opposite, and showcase a culture and people as diversified as can be. The artistic nature of the film does of course contribute to the outlandish atmosphere, but between the lines one cannot help but considering Japan's foreign relations.

Today, there are large amounts of Chinese immigrants in Japan. The treatment of Chinese people in Swallowtail Butterfly, however, seems more in line with the differential treatment of the wave of Korean immigrants that flowed into Japan in the eighties.

Even though there does not appear to be any Korean residents in Swallowtail’s Yen Town, it seems to be quite a few parallels to the Zainichi (slang for Koreans in Japan) issues that Japan has been struggling with since the 1980s.

Iwai himself hasn't vocalized much about such interpretations in the media, at least not which I could find. He did however express admiration for the strength he saw in immigrants in Japan, a strength that seemed lost to him in his fellow countrymen.

Ageha from the movie Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) is riding her bike while looking over her shoulder.
I'm just getting ready for my vacation at Haight-Ashbury. Ca 1965.

The story of Ageha

Unique in style and political undertones as the film might be, the main attraction is still the gripping story and the character chemistry. The story of Ageha is the center of attention. She is a young girl whose mother one-day turns up dead. As a result she is sold as a commodity to a shantytown streetwalker.

The prostitute takes any valuables she can find and leaves Ageha with another young prostitute. From there on we witness the growing up of Ageha and how she proves to be stronger than anyone could have predicted.

The lowly community might seem filthy and opportunistic, but the characters prove to be multifaceted, and often not as cynical as we are first led to believe. Granted, a lot of Yen Town’s citizens spend most of their days concocting schemes to lure cash out of innocent office workers. On the other hand, the hoodlums never hurt anyone and are simply trying to get by with the hand they are dealt in life.

Due to the free flow of opium, the intrigues are tightened when the Triads (Chinese mafia) suddenly invade the lives of the shantytown population. In the midst of this intrusion, a high-ranking triad mobster abuses Ageha’s matron sister (Glico), and ends up dead (by accident) in the process.

By chance, Glico’s boyfriend discovers a tape on the dead yakuza, a tape which holds the key to forging counterfeit Yen notes. This brings the attention of all kinds of questionable characters. Not the ideal situation for two young girls indeed. As the plot thickens, the characters continue to grow.

Glico - aka Japanese singer Chara - got famous for her song called Swallowtail Butterfly, from the movie with the same name.
A girl's gotta practice her Blue Steel!

Final Verdict for Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly is built on a heap of layers that could easily be discussed and analyzed at length for pages up and pages down. To reiterate, the film is unlike anything you have ever seen, for better or for worse.

If taken for what it is, you will get an extraordinary experience that will stay with you long after the end credits roll. Give it time, let it set, and the characters, their lives and the fantastic journey they go through will drag you in.

Swallowtail is an art house film for sure, but it's got indefinite depth, one of a kind design, and a character ensemble for the books. It goes without saying that it has earned its underground reputation as well as the JCA stamp of approval.


Film Comment: Interview: Shunji Iwai

Lori Hitchcock, Indiana University, USA: ... language and multiculturalism in Swallowtail ...

Midnight Eye: Swallowtail Butterfly

Tokyo International Film Festival: Swallowtail Butterfly Q&A

Variety: Swallowtail Butterfly

Unfortunately, there simply does not exist any decent releases of Swallowtail Butterfly. Several DVD- and Blu-ray-versions can be found online, but be advised: These vary greatly in quality, some are without subtitles, and keep regions in mind. eBay or Yesasia are probably your best bets.

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